Tuesday, March 31, 2009

What Makes You Laugh?

Here's a list of things that make, or have made, me laugh.

- Dad's Army
- Space Captain Smith
- 'Discworld' Novels
- Robin Williams
- Ken Dodd
- Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
- Round the Horne
- Bob Newhart
- Rowan Atkinson
- Not the Nine O'Clock News
- The Young Ones
- Believe Nothing
- Allo Allo
- Porridge
- Going Straight
- Soap
- My kids
- Looking in the Mirror
- Monty Python
- The Navy Lark
- Are You Being Served
- Fawlty Towers
- Victor Borge
- Basil Brush
- Charlie Chaplin
- Buster Keaton
- Laurel and Hardy
- Morecambe and Wise
- Penn and Teller
- My Dad
- Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers)
- Jim Carey
- Men In Black
- Anything from Pixar
- and lots more.

When troubles get to me, I find something to laugh at and all of these have helped. To them, I say, thankyou.

Monday, March 30, 2009


How many lead characters do you need? From observation, the best books/films have one, three or seven.

Seven may seem like a lot, but in a long-running TV show it gives more variety to the episodes. In a long book it gives some reign to secondary characters and keeps the reader hooked.

One or three characters, however, seem to be the most common: Think Kirk/Spock/McCoy (or Picard/Riker/Data if you're too young), or there's Rincewind/Twoflower/'Wooden Box with lots of legs' in the first two Discworld novels.

In one of the books I've read recently, there was the eponymous hero, Space Captain Smith, his female pilot, Carveth, and his best friend, Suruk, whilst Iain Banks tends to use three characters in his books.

In a group of three, one character tends to dominate, but the other two have a life of their own, adding some complexity and further interest to the plot.

It's not a hard and fast rule, but it does tend to occur more frequently than any other grouping.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Did You Know...

Three things that you may not know.

Adam Smith, the doyen of the free-marketeers, wrote in 'The Wealth of Nations', that it is sometimes worthwhile to keep unprofitable enterprises open for the benefit of society as a whole.

Several religous figures wrote to Darwin congratulating him on his book, 'The Origin of Species'. One letter, from Reverend Charles Kingsley, was quoted in the second edition: 'I have gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of the deity to believe that he created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe that he required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of his laws.'

Benjamin Franklin once said that he had never lost an argument, but neither had he convinced anyone that he was right.

Enjoy your weekend.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Working Class

When planning your 'world' how do you populate it with realistic occupations?

There are the obvious ones such as a smithy, a banker, merchant etc, but what of the less well known ones?

A good book to help is 'orgy planner wanted' by Vicki Leon.

Forget the title which is there to get people interested, inside you'll find some very odd jobs indeed from the ancient world, but all of which make sense when you contemplate ancient life.

For example, the Hoplite warriors of ancient Greece didn't carry their equipment into battle, they had a slave do it for them. The slave also dressed the warrior in his armour before the battle and would often end up dead after it if his side lost.

Who emptied the cesspits of city houses? A poor man desperate for money who would then sell it onto farmers...at least in Ancient Rome.

We know that emperors had mints where coins were made. Did you know that there was a specialist job making the dies that were used to make the coins? The best dies would only make 1000 coins before they needed replacing, so it was a full time job.

Some cities were known for their baths or their temples, and who better to show the tourists round the town than a tour guide. Yep, there were men and women spinning tall tales in Delphi and other cities before the birth of Christ.

Other good books about jobs and life in ancient and medieval times have been written by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame.

So when you're creating a world, think of every job that would need to be done. Any of them will add a bit more colour than the standard smith, banker and tradesman.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


In September 1939, whilst Germany began its invasion of Poland, a little known battle in Mongolia decided the outcome of WW2.

I doubt very many people, even historians, know of the battle of Nomonhan. It was fought between the Japanese and the Russians in a small corner or Mongolia and was the last of the battles they had been fighting for control of Northern China since the turn of the 20th century.

The Soviets won the battle, and that is its significance.

For the previous forty years, the Japanese had been building up their empire in the far east through the conquest of Korea and Manchuria. They had already beaten the Russians in 1904/5 and took advantage of the Chinese and Russian Revolutions to expand that empire.

Their aim was to control as much of China, Mongolia and Siberia as they could handle and use the area's mineral resources for its own industries.

After Stalin's purges of 1937, the Japanese thought that they had another chance to expand their empire into Mongolia, bring the country under its control and remove the Soviet-backed communist regime.

Fortunately for Britain and rest of the world they failed. Not only did the Soviets win the battle, they destroyed the Japanese forces sent against them. The result? Japanese planners gave up their attempts to conquer North Asia and switched their attention south and east to the colonies of the European nations and to the USA.

Without this defeat, it is unlikely that the Japanese would have attacked Pearl Harbour. The USA would then have stayed out of the war in Europe and Stalin would have faced a two front war which he would most likely have lost.

One small, unreported battle decided the fate of the world.

In our own lives, and in our writing, there are small things that we can overlook when trying to understand what has happened and why. They are our Nomonhans. Knowing about them and their influence can help us understand ourselves and our stories and characters.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

One Little Thing

When struggling with my writing (or anything else), I often find that doing one little thing can give me the impetus I need.

- Sick and tired of a messy desk? I throw one thing in the bin and watch the effort snowball as I decide that another thing needs to go as well.

- Can't think of anything to write? I get a pen and paper and write down a novel 'to-do' list and then write my characters at the top.

- Don't feel like cooking? I make some toast.

- Kids room a mess? Get them to make their beds...or put something of their clothes away.

- Cupboards need clearing out? Take the first thing out of there, decide if I'm ever going to use it and act accordingly.

A car needs only the turn of a key; a computer needs the push of a button; a child needs a hug.

One small step is all it takes to get moving.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Good News...and It's Holding

I've had some good things happen over the last week and so far nothing bad has happened to dampen it down.

Over the last few months I've had good things happen: events and news etc. On every occasion that piece of good news has been immediately followed by some bad news. In the last week that hasn't happened.

Things are looking up.

Above my working area I have a poem called 'Don't Quit'. I bought the poster in the early 1980s and a few years later put it in a metal frame. It's dusty, battered and looking the worse for wear, but I read it most days despite its high 'cheese' content.

There are days when it has been the only thing between staying the course and quitting.

The first verse is, to me, the best:

When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
When the road you're trudging seems all uphill,
When the funds are low and the debts are high,
And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest, if you must - but don't you quit.

That idea of resting for a while has saved me many a time, especially when writing and getting no replies from agents or magazines. Taking time out from writing and then coming back to it refreshed is often all it takes to remind myself why I do it.

The last two lines of the poem are apt at any time:

So stick to the fight when you're hardest hit,
It's when things seem worst that you must not quit.

I think I'll get that frame down from the wall and give it a dust and polish. It's the least I can do for something that keeps helping me every day.

Friday, March 20, 2009

A New Car

I took delivery of my new (second-hand) car this morning.

The plan was to take the boys over to my mother's house, getting her car through the car wash on the way, so they could do some home-ed over there. Whilst they were doing their work, I would transfer a home video onto DVD and do some writing whilst waiting for the car to turn up.

My mother's car would be back at her house, washed and cleared out, I would get my new car and the boys could do their work without any distraction.

That was the plan.

I got to the car wash at 9am, when the garage called, and can they deliver it now. I said yes, knowing that it would take them about half an hour to get to my mother's house.

I arrived at mum's, started the video transfer, and the man knocked at the door.

As my eldest suffers from Aspergers, he couldn't be left without an adult, so he had to come. The other two wanted a ride in Daddy's new car.

Forty-five minutes later, we were back, the video had nearly finished and it was close to 11am. No one had done any work and now they were all hungry.

Still, at least I managed to get my mother's car washed, my new car delivered and the video transferred.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Thought For the Day

A picture paints a thousand words.

Writers paint a picture with a thousand words.

Don't be scared of writing your prose with too much detail.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Family Traits

I've been doing some copying of family videos to DVDs this week, with some funny surprises.

The most recent one I copied was for late 2000, when my kids were 6,5 and nearly 1. I saw that 5 year old (now 13), pull a face that I have seen many times on my youngest. Same attitude, same face, same curling up into a ball when he loses anything.

It reminded me of how much runs through families in terms of behaviour as well as looks.

Many years ago at my grandfather's funeral I caught a glimpse of a cousin, whose face, from the side, had exactly the same profile as another cousin. Facially they were vastly different, but in profile they could have been twins.

As a young child I was often confused for my younger brother. A fact that suited him down to the ground as he was getting into trouble and I ended up getting the blame. After a while I learned to point his victims in his direction.

The reason I'm raising this is that in my novel, there is a father and daughter, and I wonder in how many ways would they react similarly?

Using my family as a guide, more than I'd first thought. It should make writing their scenes a lot easier.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

25 things...

I've seen this on other blogs and as it seems like a good idea, I'll do it too. It has nothing to do with a lack of inspiration, or laziness.

1 - I'm generally lazy. If I can find an easy way of doing something, or can ignore it, I will.

2 - I play the guitar.

3 - I was born in London.

4 - I have worked as a banker, a civil servant, a driver, publican, software engineer (code monkey), part-time teacher, meter reader, import/export, loans underwriter, shop assistant, financial salesman (for 3 months, 1 of which was for training), and several other things too.

5 - The longest time I've spent at a job was seven years, six months.

6 - The shortest time I've spent at a job was one week.

7 - I went to university when I was 31 and graduated with a 2ii honours degree in History.

8 - I'm scared of heights...needles...spiders...and water (makes having a bath or shower difficult).

9 - I hate it when it rains most of the time.

10 - I hate grey clouds that just sit in the sky and can't be bothered to rain.

11 - I'm not paranoid. Governments are out to get me, and the rest of the world hates me. In fact, software designers make sure that there is special line of code in each program that causes my PC crash after an hour of use...just mine, no one else's.

12 - I'm a hoarder. You never know, in 100 years time that piece of cheap glassware could be worth a fortune.

13 - I have co-written and appeared in an amateur play called 'A House Divided'.

14 - I used to be an army cadet and was the best shot in the platoon.

15 - My favourite actor is Sam Neill.

16 - I love the smell of freshly cut grass.

17 - I own every Star Trek series and film on DVD...except for the animated series.

18 - Aside from the play I mentioned above, I have also appeared in three Scout stage productions, done stand up comedy, sung and played my guitar, all to crowds who cheered when I left the stage.

19 - I performed with a church choir for two years, taking part in three concerts.

20 - I suffer from Asperger's...well...everyone else suffers from my Asperger's.

21 - I wrote articles on biblical subjects for a monthly parish magazine for two years.

22 - I have three boys, the eldest of whom suffers from Asperger's. One of my proudest achievements is that I haven't killed them...though there have been occasions where I've been tempted.

23 - I think Shakespeare is overrated...and Charles Dickens...and especially Thomas Hardy. But I do have a lot of their work on my shelves and have read some of it.

24 - I speak a little German and can occasionally hold a faltering conversation in it.

25 - My dream is to own a house large enough for me, my kids and a decent sized personal library.

26 - I'm not too good at Mathematics.

Monday, March 16, 2009


Ever have one of those nights where you just can't get to sleep? I get them now and again and I had one last night.

The only upsides are that I get a good long sleep the night after and people leave me alone during the day.

Today, despite my near comatose state, I had a flash of inspiration. As a software engineer, I used to plan out the programs I would write by using Pseudo-code. It was a mix of plain english and program code that would outline how it would work.

So I've decided to call all my story plans, Pseudo-Writing. It doesn't make any difference to what I do in the planning stage, but at least I have a fancy name for it now.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Red Nose Day

Today is Red Nose Day.

Every other year in Britain the Comic Relief charity organises Red Nose Day, with the aim of raising money to help the poor in the UK and across the world. As part of the day, the BBC Turns over its main TV channel (BBC1) to an evening of laughter to raise money: a telethon.

There are also several things happening in the run up to it.

This year, they have supplied 'five minute interviews' with people such as Tom Jones and Stephen Fry amongst others.

My favourite one, however, is the Basil Brush interview.

Basil is a puppet on a children's show, but has a wicked sense of humour and tells some of the corniest, oldest jokes you have ever heard.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Florence L. Barclay

Ever heard of Florence L. Barclay? Probably not.

She was a relatively famous romance author at the turn of the 20th century and has a shortish Wikipedia entry. You can still buy some of her stories on Amazon.

I came across her books in a second hand bookshop many years ago and bought four of them. They were purple hardbacks which, I thought, would look good on the book shelf. I eventually read one, I forget which, and it was a pleasant, if unchallenging read. It made Mills & Boon novels look like literary fiction.

Why do I mention this?

Despite being a small time author, her books are still available and she has a measure of fame via the internet. As struggling authors, we may not be famous in our lifetimes, or even well paid, but it may be that in a century's time, our books and stories will still be available for future generations to enjoy. Even if, like Florence Barclay's books, they aren't challenging or 'great' literature.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


How many 'displacement activities' do I indulge in?

I have finish off a short story, but suddenly realise that I HAVE to catch up on email. So I get that out of the way, settle down to my main task for the day and then realise that the kids clothes haven't been ironed. After the ironing I suddenly realise that I haven't updated my blog today...and so it carries on.

Here's some of my 'displacement' activities.

Email, BBC news website, vacuuming front room, checking up on kids home-ed, rearranging my desk, tuning my PC, filing my paperwork.

Some of those may need doing every day, but I do use them as an excuse for not getting on with the writing.

So today I vow that I will finish my short story and prepare it for submission...after I've had some toast and made another cup of tea.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Food, Glorious Food

What's your favourite food?

I like curries, medium hot. Thankfully my kids like them too, so there's never an argument when I cook one.

I'm also fond of Lasagne (but not as much as Garfield) and Pancakes.

Although I enjoy cooking occasionally, I don't like spending hours in the kitchen, so most of my meals are made using pre-prepared ingredients (Curry Sauce for example). Having said that, making a pile of roast vegetables for the boys gives me a buzz, especially as they all want seconds.

In fact, I'm going to make a curry for dinner now: Chicken Tikka Masala with Naan Bread.

Anyone fancy coming round?

Monday, March 09, 2009

Joy Oh Joy

There are days when NOTHING can dampen your enthusiasm for writing...usually when you get published.

Today I received a magazine through the post in which one of my short stories was published. It's a magazine produced by the Lister Hospital Radio Station, so has a limited run and audience, but it's still a printed publication.

Some days I love being a writer.

Friday, March 06, 2009


The sun is out the sky is blue, there's not a cloud in the sky.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

How Much Should A Writer Read?

As a writer I know I need to read as well as write. But how much?

What I read is partly determined by the genre I write in (SF), but the amount I read is up to me.

Given that I have a family and that writing doesn't yet pay the bills, I don't have as much time to read as professional writer.

My weekly target is 1 BE: 1 Book Equivalent. This can be made up of magazines, short stories and full length books and novels. A whole magazine counts as 25% of a book and a short story 10-30%, depending on the length of the story. Long novels, which I define as 600 or more pages of small writing (take a bow Alastair Reynolds), count as 2 BEs. Websites, emails and blogs don't count.

It also allows me to have several books on the go at once. Currently, I am reading Prospect and First Edition magazines, though I don't expect to finish either of them this week. I also have four books (Absolution Gap, Fooled By Randomness, Shoot the Damn Dog & Call the Midwife) and a short story collection (Ambrose Bierce) on the go.

It's a useful, if rough, guide and if I can maintain a reading level of 1BE per week, I should at least be reading a decent amount per year...even if it is late at night when everyone's gone to bed and I'm trying to stay awake.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Another Tip

Following on from the last tips, here's another one:

'Write something every day'.

That could mean a well-thought out blog, editing a few paragraphs or even writing in your diary.

Today, I've dealt with two unhelfpul internet hosting companies, taken a nine year old to hospital to have his cast replaced, badgered the two eldest to do their home-ed work and taken the grocery delivery in and put it away. Later on I'll be cooking, feeding the brats...sorry my wonderful children, watching a DVD with them before bed, putting the youngest to bed on time (fat chance) and shooing the eldest into their rooms.

Your days are very likely just as bitty and unstructured, despite your best efforts.

On days like these, I content myself with a blog and a bit of editing. I'll write some more when everyone's in bed. If I'm still awake.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Chucking Out the Books...Or Not.

Do you throw out books? Or, like me, do you keep them even when you know you're never going to read them again?

One of my biggest regrets is chucking out 100's of books at the behest of my then wife. They were in the loft, safely boxed up and out of the way and we didn't need the space. The only books we had downstairs were those that were 'useful', or looked good on the shelf as they were part of a set.

Some of them cannot be replaced as they were 19th and early 20th century books. None were collector's items or first editions, most of them were 'trash' novels that were a diverting read now and then. I kept them partly for the sake of keeping them and partly because it was (and still is) a dream to one day have a house big enough to house a mini-library.

As I look at my two fully stacked (getting to the point of overflowing) bookshelves I can see a few that I will never read again, may never refer to, or have only partly read as they were not worth reading (Keeping It Real being an example).

I may at some point, box them up and store them until I can fulfill my dream, but I won't throw them out again.


A book is a source of information or entertainment, some of which may never be needed or used again (ask any librarian), but that doesn't make it disposable. Novels which bore the pants off me, or are just 'not my style', may entertain my children or grandchildren.

Passing something on to another person who can use it is an excellent idea. If we don't have the space to store something, then donating to a charity shop can be an option, but can we say the same for just 'chucking it out'? If we get into the habit of discarding anything we feel is useless, what does that reveal about us?

How many books do you have that you're never likely to read?

Monday, March 02, 2009

Learning to Write

Over the last four years I've learnt a lot about the craft writing. Sometimes it's by trial and error, sometimes through other peoples writing and sometimes from help books and articles. Here's two things.

1. Summarise, then explain. In a novel you'll have a lot of space to do this, in a short story or article far less, and happens a lot at the beginning of most stories. A statement is made and then expanded upon: Where are the characters and how did they get there? What's just happened and how did it happen?

2. Huge, Small, Odd. Or to put it another way, SHOW (Small, Huge, Odd = What). This is a tip I picked up elsewhere, but can't remember where. When describing anything, pick one thing huge, one thing small and one thing odd. For me that would be my ego (huge), my gen......erosity (small), and the way my right eyelid twitches involuntarily from time to time (odd).

Neither of these are 'hard and fast' rules but I've found them to be good guides when writing.